By Chuck Strouse
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Even if it doesn't matter who's in charge of the OCB, the most recent Radio Martí program evaluations and audience surveys don't inspire confidence in the current director. Radio Martí's staff and news coverage have been labeled unprofessional and unbalanced by a panel of independent journalists contracted by Florida International University's Center for International Journalism; and the government's own monitoring reports, which once had Radio Martí attracting approximately 50 percent of Cuba's radio listeners, in 1998 put the audience at 9 percent. Both audience surveys inside Cuba and focus-group interviews of recent U.S. arrivals are notoriously inexact. While Radio Martí critics have always questioned high audience numbers in the past, the current OCB management insists the recent low figures are not reliable, and whatever decline there might be is the result of increased jamming by the Cuban authorities. (TV Martí, despite its nine-million-dollar annual budget, never had many viewers owing to technical obstacles, a situation worsened by the loss a year and a half ago of the station's transmitting balloon. A new balloon resumed transmissions this past October, according to a government spokesman, but there's no word on whether this has raised the audience figures.)
Beyond programming concerns and the political intrigue common in government offices, the OCB management has been accused of an inordinate number of illegal personnel practices since San Roman took over. At least a half-dozen formal complaints have been filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging job discrimination. Most are still pending, but an administrative-law judge ruled on one case this past February 5. Not only did Judge Jeannette Walters-Marquez validate all charges filed by former Radio Martí reporter Angelica Mora, the judge forcefully attacked the credibility of San Roman, Radio Martí director Roberto Rodriguez-Tejera, and TV Martí senior reporter William Valdes. Mora, who has extensive connections among dissidents and independent journalists in Cuba, was taken off the air in 1998 for reasons never fully explained. Rodriguez-Tejera, however, did imply on Radio Mambí that Mora had somehow been tainted by contact with Cuban state security agents.
In her eighteen-page decision, Walters-Marquez discounted Rodriguez-Tejera's story as "untrue and a pretext for national-origin discrimination." Mora, a Chilean, eventually found a lower-level job in Washington with the Voice of America. The case, according to several sources familiar with the proceedings, is in the process of being settled. San Roman did not return two phone calls, and Rodriguez-Tejera declined to comment, saying the station's legal department advised him not to speak about any personnel matters. Walters-Marquez's unequivocal ruling, according to another ex-Martí employee who says his own discrimination complaint has been languishing for three years, has caught the attention of government investigators whom he believes are pursuing his case more energetically than before.
The decision for Mora also encouraged former Radio Martí programming director Oscar Barcelo to seek redress for what he alleges were San Roman's discrimination and threats of blackmail because of Barcelo's sexual orientation. In what some observers believe could potentially do the most damage to San Roman's reputation, Barcelo has formally complained to the EEOC and says he is considering additional legal action. On February 21, 2001, in a three-page letter to the chairman of the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the independent federal agency that oversees all government broadcast operations, Barcelo listed several alleged instances in which San Roman ridiculed Barcelo's homosexuality and threatened to "out" him on Miami radio stations. Barcelo, who testified in Mora's case and was determined by Judge Walters-Marquez to be a "credible witness," also accuses San Roman's bureaucratic bosses of disregarding numerous complaints about San Roman's violations of "personnel, contracting, and other governing regulations" while "destroying careers left and right." In 1998, after a thirteen-year career with the OCB, Barcelo was transferred to a temporary position in Washington. When that job ended, he was unemployed for six months, finally finding work with Voice of America.
San Roman came to the Office of Cuba Broadcasting as a reformer, a progressive Democrat seen as someone who could give Radio Martí an updated edge and -- at least in the minds of those who longed to cast off the looming shadow of Jorge Mas Canosa -- root out his people and present a modern, foundation-free face to the island.
And he did accomplish many of those changes. Today, even though audience ratings are plummeting, some anecdotal accounts from the island portray Radio Martí as the best and most popular alternative to Cuba's state-run media. A report of an unofficial and relatively unrestricted visit to the island by representatives of the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress stated: "[Two independent Cuban] journalists praised Radio Martí and noted that independents in Cuba who make information available for broadcast over Radio Martí play an important role." Furthermore, despite complaints from various independent journalists that Martí airwaves are accessible only to chosen dissident groups, San Roman and Radio Martí chief Rodriguez-Tejera frequently are credited with expanding contact with dissidents in Cuba.
In mid-February Florida International University hosted a panel discussion in which academics and members of the Broadcasting Board of Governors discussed the Martí stations and ways they could keep up with changes in Cuba and the rest of the world. San Roman was in the audience and heard almost no negative remarks from the panel, which included a few of the Martís' sharpest critics. On one hand most panelists seemed to agree that some of the softer, entertainment and sports programs on Radio Martí were more effective in attracting Cuban listeners. On the other hand, several august members of the audience, which included Voice of America and Radio Liberty executives, asserted that government broadcasts had played a stabilizing and motivating role in the downfall of communism in Europe and should do the same when Castro departs Cuba. The Martís' news operations, several speakers said, needed to become "a model of absolutely reliable information for a post-Castro Cuba," "never shrill," and "should have a very high level of professionalism."